Oz Group, the largest blueberry supplier in Australia, has partnered with gas and welding specialist BOC to enter the growing frozen berry market via a Linde CRYOLINE CW freezer tunnel solution.
As a 100 per cent Australian farmer owned co-operative on the mid-north coast of NSW, Oz Group is in a region responsible for almost 80 per cent of blueberry production in Australia.
“We now have more variety of product going out to the market and have found people are enjoying eating Australian-grown frozen berries,” Oz Group chief executive Adam Bianchi said.
With millions of blueberries coming through its packing facility each season, a small portion of blueberries are often set aside because the appearance did not meet the company’s requirements for shelf-ready fresh berries.
“These berries were still good quality and ready to eat, so we started looking at the potential to freeze them. In the supermarket, most frozen berries sold in Australia were from overseas, so there was a huge opportunity to introduce more Australian-grown frozen berries locally,” Bianchi said.
To retain the taste, flavour and texture, individually quick-freezing the berries was the preferred method, according to BOC technical engineer Steve McLoughlin.
“Liquid nitrogen is a very effective medium for freezing any food product because it is -196 degrees. It’s very cold, making the freezing process very fast,” he said.
BOC installed a five metre Linde CRYOLINE CW freezer tunnel featuring CRYOWAVE, a controllable vibration technology used to individually quick-freeze the berries. A liquid nitrogen storage tank was installed outside the facility, an insulated pipeline connecting to the freezer tunnel.
Two large exhaust fans were installed on the roof to safely exhaust cold produced from the liquid nitrogen process. An oxygen analyser was installed on the walls to monitor gas levels and other emergency mechanisms were built into the solution.
BOC’s engineers programmed the tunnel’s computer interface, allowing Oz Group to view the temperature, operating parameters, safety panels and recipes for product freezing.
BOC also provided training for Oz Group staff, covering operation of the freezer tunnel, maintenance and comprehensive safety processes.
“When I looked into the CRYOWAVE tunnel, it impressed me that it could freeze at a rapid rate,” Bianchi said.
“It would snap freeze berries within 4 minutes. This would mean we could freeze 200 to 300 kilograms of berries per hour – while keeping the integrity of the berry.”
During the first blueberry season using the CRYOLINE CW freezer, Oz Group processed thousands of frozen berries now sold in Australian supermarkets.
“It has transformed our operations and reduced waste by allowing us to process berries through the CRYOWAVE tunnel,” Oz Group operations manager Shaun Tholen said.
“BOC has been critical to the process in terms of training and implementation of the technology.”
The CRYOWAVE assured the blueberry supplier that its berries would retain nutrients and integrity, Bianchi said.
“They were really helpful in setting recipes for the CRYOWAVE, giving us set options at the push of a button,” he said.
“Giving us comfort in terms of the safety and operations process, because there are many things that go along with nitrogen and making sure it is safe. Having them on site and available gave us strong assurance that we’re doing the right thing.”
Marketed under the Driscoll’s brand, Oz Group’s berries are sold in IGA, Woolworths, Coles and Costco.